Refusing to be refugees: Pacific island communities choosing to stay
Facing the threat of rising seawaters, Pacific Island leaders are deciding to fight the root causes of the climate crisis, making clear that migration is the last option. Picture by Patjosse on Pixabay.
In 2017, New Zealand made international headlines for proposing a special visa category for climate refugees. Aimed at helping its neighbouring Pacific Islands, the measure was the first ever plan for those displaced by the sinking of entire nations.
People living on the low-lying Pacific Islands are among the most threatened by rising seawaters, with some areas experiencing sea level rise four times greater than the global average. The highest point on Tuvalu is less than five meters above sea level. This tiny part of the world is at risk of drowning, with the region declaring climate change ‘the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific’.
Facing this reality, people from places like Fiji, Kiribati and Tuvalu are doing everything they can to stay on their islands. Unlike other instances of forced displacement – there’s time to act, albeit limited. And in a reversal of the dominant narrative about migrants invading other countries, the climate refugee proposal was ultimately rejected by the islands themselves, telling New Zealand they wanted to ‘stay in their homes and homelands’.
Implicit in this statement is what’s at stake for the Pacific Island community in battling the climate crisis and what’s lost when people become refugees: the fragmentation of the cultural, social and personal identities attached to their homes.
This loss can already be seen in Fiji, where entire villages are being forced to relocate to higher ground. In Narikoso, a village on Fiji’s fourth largest island, seawater is entering seven of the homes lying in the red zone – areas at risk of disappearing within the decade. One of the villagers, Kelepi Saukitoga, described the phenomenon as an ‘uninvited visitor cashing in our food, homes and water’ in his speech at last year’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.
Narikoso is now waiting to be relocated to higher ground, a decision made as a matter of survival. For many in Fiji, the internal displacement has been deeply traumatic. ‘The decision to relocate a Fijian community may seem like an easy one, but abandoning your home isn't some cold and calculated business decision. For those affected, it's a deeply emotional loss,’ said Fiji’s PM Frank Bainimarama.
For Saukitoga and his villagers, leaving the home means more than losing a piece of property. Saukitoga grew up in the same house as his grandparents – and their parents before him. For four generations, his family had sustained the same rhythm of life, picking up where their ancestors left off. Leaving this home would mean breaking this critical connection to the past, and the futures that are built from it.
‘It will be a sad day (when) I will leave the home I grew up, (where) my children were born... the memories of my mum and dad will be taken away,’ mourned Saukitoga.
Forced displacement involves the rupturing of past, present and future. To lose one’s home is to fragment the unbroken rhythm of celebrations, births and deaths – memories that live and breathe with the people living inside. In this way, losing one's home or homeland forces a person to build a future on the destruction of the old.
It’s this splintering of identity that many in the Pacific are resisting. In Tuvalu, the future of their culture is at the core of a decision to migrate. ‘Most of the older generation do not want to move as they believe they will lose their identity, culture, lifestyle and traditions. But I believe that younger generations intend to migrate for the sake of the future generations,’ said Nikotemo Iona, a member of the country’s Bureau of Meteorology.
As individuals consider their futures, Pacific Island leadership has made it clear that migration is the last option. In 2008, Pacific leaders endorsed the Niue Declaration, which emphasizes 'the importance of retaining the Pacific’s social and cultural identity, and the desire of Pacific peoples to continue to live in their own countries, where possible'.
Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga has argued that planning for forced displacement is to solve for the symptom rather than the root cause. ‘I am very worried about this self-defeatist approach to suggest that people from low-lying, at-risk countries could be relocated. Because it fails to understand the implications of this issue for the entire world,’ said Sopoaga to The Guardian.
His argument addresses a unique feature of the crisis in the Pacific Islands: the opportunity to forestall displacement by recognizing that what's happening in the Pacific is a global problem, and therefore requires a global solution.
In the same way that a series of actions, behaviours and short-sighted decisions across the globe have culminated in the climate crisis – the solutions will require the global community to work together to address what it created.
Ultimately, the fate of the South Pacific is inextricably intertwined with how the world deals with the climate emergency. During his recent trip to Tuvalu, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote that what’s happening in the country is a sign of what’s in store for us all. At stake is not just a group of islands, but our own collective pasts, presents and futures.
Xuyen Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American writer based in Beijing. Her personal work focuses on stories related to migration, refugees and the psychology of trauma. She's written about her personal refugee experience in New Naratif.